Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com
Consider this: our advanced robotic creatures, those drone aircraft grimly named Predators and Reapers, are still blowing away human beings from Yemen to Pakistan. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is now testing out a 14,000-pound drone advanced enough to take off and land on its own on the deck of an aircraft carrier -- no human pilot involved. (As it happens, it's only a "demonstrator" and, at a cost of $1.4 billion, can't do much else.) While we're talking about the skies, who could forget that the U.S. military is committed to buying 2,400 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, already dubbed, amid cost overruns of every sort, "the most expensive weapons system in history." The bill for them: nearly $400 billion or twice what it cost to put a man on the moon.
In similar fashion, the U.S. Navy, with 10 aircraft carriers afloat on a planet on which no other nation has more than two, is now building a new class of "supercarriers." The first of them, the USS Gerald R. Ford, is due for delivery in 2016 at an estimated cost of more than $12 billion. It, too, is experiencing the sort of cost overruns and performance problems that now seem to accompany all new U.S. weapons systems. In the meantime, Washington has dispatched one of its littoral combat ships (a troubled $34 billion weapons system) to Singapore; is flying manned aircraft and drones over the Nigerian bush; and as for building national security state infrastructure of just about any sort, seldom has a problem getting Congress to pony up -- as in the $69 million now in the 2015 defense budget for the latest prison being constructed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, meant to house just 15 "high-value" prisoners. Similarly, when it comes to the infrastructure needed to listen in on the world, the sky's the limit, including an almost $2 billion data center built for the National Security Agency in Bluffdale, Utah. In such "infrastructural" realms, the U.S. is today without serious competition.
On the other hand, if we're talking about purely civilian infrastructure, just consider that, at this very moment, Congress is dilly-dallying while the crucial Highway Trust Fund that keeps American roads and interstates in shape is "heading for a cliff" and projected to go bankrupt in August. This from the country that once turned the car into a poetic symbol of freedom. Meanwhile, the nation's overall infrastructure, from levees and dams to wastewater and aviation, now regularly gets a grade of D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
As a rising power in the nineteenth century, the U.S. moved toward global status on the basis of an ambitious program of canal building and then of government-sponsored transcontinental railroads. Jump a century and a half and the country that, until recently, was being called the planet's "sole superpower" has yet to build a single mile of high-speed rail. Not one. Even a prospective line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, which looked like it might be constructed, is now blocked coming and going.
If, however, you happen to be looking for a twenty-first century rising power that has put its money on the American (rail)road to success, check out China. When Chinese state expenditures are discussed in the U.S., the American concern is always military spending (definitely on the rise), but China's domestic spending on high-speed rail is staggering. As of 2012, the country already had a 10,000-kilometer network, including the longest line in the world, and it's expected to hit 15,000 kilometers by the end of 2015, not to speak of -- as Pepe Escobar notes today -- high-speed "silk roads" that could, in the end, reach across Eurasia. Someday, if Chinese engineering dreamers are to be believed, there might even be a two-day 8,000-mile line from Beijing via the longest underwater tunnel ever built through Canada to the United States.
If you want a measure of rise and decline, look no further than this comparison between U.S. and Chinese infrastructural build-ups, between, that is, Washington's global military-first strategy and Beijing's civilian-first one meant to create a transport and communications system that could economically tie significant parts of the world to that country for decades to come. Rising... falling... Perhaps as Escobar, that peripatetic traveler across the realms he likes to call Pipelineistan, suggests in his latest piece, we really are heading for a new Eurasian Century.